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Materials Company Seeks to Impact Plastic Recycling with Technology

circular economy
Through the process of methanolysis, Eastman’s circular recycling technology breaks down polyester-based products into their polymer building blocks.

A Kingsport, Tenn.-based specialty materials company is tackling the plastic waste issue by utilizing circular recycling technology to manage polyester waste and carbon renewal technology for other hard-to-recycle plastics.

“Eastman is committed to working together across the value chain to create real and actionable solutions toward a true circular economy. We believe that sustainable solutions to plastic waste are in reach, and we are determined to play our part in the world’s collective response,” says Bradley Lifford, corporate communications representative for Eastman Chemical Company. “Both of our recycling solutions—advanced circular recycling and carbon renewal technology—directly align with our company’s purpose to enhance the quality of life in a material way.”

Using the process of methanolysis, Eastman’s circular recycling technology breaks down polyester-based products into their polymer building blocks. These building blocks can then be reintroduced to the production of new polyester-based polymers.

“Advanced circular recycling technology is a positive end-of-life solution for polyester materials that might otherwise be discarded in landfills,” says Lifford. “Through the process of methanolysis, polyester-based products are broken down to their polymer building blocks.”

Waste polyesters are depolymerized using heat, pressure and methanol to give monomers called dimethyl terephthalate (DMT), ethylene glycol (EG) and other specialty monomers. These monomers can then be reintroduced as recycled polyester raw materials to make new polyesters.

“We see methanolysis as complementary to mechanical recycling. Eastman supports mechanical recycling, and, in fact, we use mechanical recycling for some of our own waste materials. We have plans to offer post-consumer recycle in our copolyester product lines,” says Lifford. “However, for mixed and difficult-to-recycle materials, we believe that advanced circular recycling is a positive end-of-life solution for those materials that might otherwise be discarded in landfills.”

Eastman is executing an engineering feasibility study on the design and construction of a commercial-scale methanolysis facility. The goal is to be operating a full-scale, advanced circular recycling facility within two to three years.

“We recognize that plastic waste is a complex problem that needs advanced solutions. As we have engaged potential partners, it is clear there is high interest across the entire value chain,” said Mark Costa, Eastman’s board chair and chief executive officer, in a statement. “Our long history of technical expertise in chemical processes, including methanolysis, and our leading position in copolyester chemistry enables us to provide this innovative solution to address the growing challenges of plastic waste in our environment.”

To address some of the most complex plastic waste, including non-polyester plastics and mixed plastics that cannot be recycled with conventional recycling technologies, Eastman has introduced its carbon renewal technology. With this new recycling technology, materials such as flexible packaging and plastic films, among others, potentially can be diverted from landfills.

“Our scientific and technical resources can be a circular economy multiplier for plastics and textiles. We have developed, operated and proven technologies that unlock value in plastics and textiles that cannot be mechanically recycled or are difficult to recycle,” says Lifford. “These scale technologies can complement current mechanical recycling technologies and enable brand owners and others in the value chain to achieve their ambitious goals for waste reduction and commitments on recycled content.”

By modifying the front end of Eastman’s cellulosics production, carbon renewal technology uses plastic waste as feedstock and converts it back to simple and versatile molecular components. The process partially oxidizes the plastic and converts it into the basic building blocks of certain Eastman products, including Advanced Materials and Fibers segment products that serve ophthalmics, durables, packaging, textiles and nonwovens end use markets.

Eastman has completed pilot tests at its Kingsport site and plans commercial production in 2019 by leveraging existing assets. The company is exploring commercial collaborations to yield mixed plastic waste to be recycled through carbon renewal technology at commercial scale.

According to Lifford, the challenges associated with the global plastic waste issue require collaboration between all the players in the value chain.

“By harnessing our specialized skills and experience, together we can significantly impact the world’s recycling capacity, creating real and actionable solutions particularly for materials that are challenging to recover with existing technologies,” he says. “Establishing these partnerships would deliver innovation recycling technologies that unlock new value in plastic. More importantly, we can work together to help provide solutions that help address the global waste problem.”

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